The late medieval Christian saints combined a focus on the issues of spirituality and inner religiosity, which reflected intense attention to the problems of soul and human relationship to the sacred, with the equally powerful emphasis on the solution of political problems of their time. St. Catherine of Siena, born Caterina di Benancasa, may serve as the primary example thereof. With her notable involvement in the late 14th century Papacy politics, this female saint played an important part in the history of the Great Schism, which was to plague Western Christianity until 1417. However, St. Catherine viewed her political advocacy of the Papacy’s return to Rome as merely a part of her larger spiritual duties. In this paper, the problem of the relation between public and spiritual dimensions of St. Catherine’s mission is to be examined, in order to situate it within the historical context of her time’s ideas of sacred and political. The main point to be made lies in illustrating the leading role of spiritual considerations in the contemporaries’ understanding of politics, as shown in the example of St. Catherine’s political activities and writings.
The political situation of St. Catherine’s lifetime was characterized by the virtual anarchy in the Papal States and Italy at large, which was widely ascribed to the absence of the pope in Rome, itself caused by the French dominance of the papacy since 1307 relocation of Curia to Avignon (modern France). Known as ‘the Avignon Captivity’, this event and subsequent growth in corruption within the papal government led to the increase in proto-nationalistic and millenarian sentiments among the Italian religiously minded intellectuals of that time. Thus, the quest for cleansing the Church from the perceived corruption was tied to the return of the Papacy to Rome, which was frequently opposed to Avignon, with the use of dichotomy of “the Eternal City” vs. “Babylon”.
While St. Catherine of Siena’s spiritual and political writings do not contain such harsh rebukes and accusations against the Avignon popes as it was the case with Petrarch, her letters to the popes and other contemporaries reflect her growing preoccupation with both spiritual deficiencies of the Avignon papacy and the alleged lack of sufficient measures against the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans. For instance, already in her first letter to Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378), Catherine combines a respectful address to the head of the Church with palpable references to “bad shepherds and rulers”, as well as to the undue preoccupation of the papacy with internecine struggle in the Christendom, to the detriment of the “warfare…against infidels”. She urged the young pope to “take heed always to appoint virtuous men” to the cardinals’ sees, lest the God send “His disciplines and scourges” for the perceived sins of the Church.
This attitude clearly resonates with the concerns about the Church’s corruption expounded by other authors of the era, even though St. Catherine’s spiritual devotion would have prevented her from voicing her opinions in harsher tones. However, such mode of exposition did little to diminish the hostility felt by French-based Avignon papal court to Catherine whom the cardinals tried to accuse of heresy and generally suspected of wielding improper influence upon the mind of the vacillating and pliable Gregory XI.
Catherine’s visit to Avignon in 1376 underscored her commitment to reforming the papacy and the deep dislike for the lavish and bureaucratic lifestyle of the Curia officials. As mentioned by Raymond of Capua, Catherine was greatly disturbed by “the stench of infernal [sic] vices” she found in the papacy’s capital. Her extraordinarily antagonistic reply to Gregory XI’s remark that she might not be fully acquainted with the Curia’s affairs testifies to the indignation felt by Catherine at the sight of luxury enjoyed at Avignon’s court. This and similar utterances by Catherine of Siena demonstrate the primacy of the notion of spiritual health of the Church over any narrowly ‘political’ concerns, which is understandable given the lack of separation between institutional spheres of the Church and the state in medieval theological-political thought.
Similarly, St. Catherine of Siena’s letters to Urban VI (1378-1389) are marked by the insistence on the necessity “to make over anew the garden of your Bride” (i.e. the Catholic Church), with a view to eradicating the supposed vices and sins inherited from the Avignon papacy. However, this urging was now supplemented with the call to give mercy to the enemies of the papacy, which was necessitated by Urban VI’s uncompromising attitude with respect to the Tuscan cities’ rebellion against the papal power. In the end, Urban’s stubborn devotion to following through the moralistic policy inspired both by St. Catherine’s call for reforming the Church and his own convictions, may have contributed to the beginning of the Great Schism just as much as the purely geopolitical considerations of the French cardinals.
The moralistic and spiritualist thrust is tangible in all subsequent letters of St. Catherine of Siena to the popes, including both Gregory XI and his Italian successor Urban VI was likewise emulated in her correspondence with the Italian city-states’ magistrates and secular sovereigns of European kingdoms. While staying in Avignon in the attempt to compel Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, Catherine strove to obtain the agreement of the French court to the launching of a crusade against the Ottoman Turks and other Muslim states. In her letter to Charles V of France, Catherine presents a dichotomy of godless and ultimately self-defeating wars between Christian monarchs, “made against one’s brother”, and the supposedly glorious crusade efforts, aimed at “the recovery of Holy Land and of those poor…souls who do not share in the Blood of the Son of God”.
Posing the dilemma in such a way, Catherine tried to convince the French King that a continuation of the war against the English was harmful both to the two realms and the spiritual well-being of their monarchs, “since hate deprives [them] of divine charity”. A crusade, on the other hand, was conceptualized as the way of following “the doctrine…and the love of God”, indicating Catherine’s dedication to the idea of a holy war against ‘infidels’.
The emphasis on peace among Christian nations as the precondition for salvation may be found in her diplomacy and reconciliation efforts both with respect to the Papal States-Florence relations and the internal politics of her native city-state of Siena. As explained by Beattie, Catherine’s ability to intervene in the Italian politics of her time was bolstered not only by her spiritual prestige but also by the potent connections enjoyed by her family in Sienese politics, and her confessor, Raymond of Capua, in Florentine and Tuscan political networks. Together with Gregory XI’s attachment to her spiritual guidance, this factor allowed Catherine to play active role in negotiations between the papacy and Tuscan cities, as well as to exert important influence in Siena, in spite of some magistrates’ concerns and protestations. Nonetheless, her intervention into the conflict between Florence and the Papal States proved ultimately unsuccessful due to the Florentines’ unwillingness to tolerate Pope Gregory XI’s alliance with the House of Visconti, the rulers of Milan, as well as the concerns regarding the possible rise in French influence in Italy. Notwithstanding her failure to either prevent or alleviate the course of the war that erupted in 1375 and lasted until 1378, Catherine’s active involvement in diplomatic proceedings on behalf of Florence, which included her fateful journey to Avignon in June 1376, demonstrated her resolve to actively participate in the supposedly worldly affairs of the contemporary Europe and Italy.
Therefore, the example of St. Catherine of Siena shows the complex interplay of spiritual and political issues in the religious activities of a late medieval saint. The main problems that were addressed by St. Catherine encapsulated both the corruption of the Church and the preservation of peace among the Christendom. Her insistence on the need for a holy war probably reflected both perception of the Muslims as ‘infidels’ and the resolve to overcome fractures evident in the late 14thcentury Europe by focusing Christian monarchs’ effort at combating the impending Ottoman expansion. In so doing, St. Catherine of Siena demonstrated her double potential as a Christian mystic and a political campaigner.